There are times when you can’t shut me up.
Sure, I am an introverted soul – I am more apt to sit quietly amongst the Giants of Gregariousness and soak in the ambiance rather than holding court amongst semi-strangers. But get me one-on-one and tickle me with a topic that wets my goat, and I can easily go off to the races. It’s like all my words are exacting vengeance against the silence that preceded them. Put a bounty on their head and is now giving them a horse whoopin’. If it weren’t for that peaky breathing part of our biology, I would probably skip that to get an extra word or two in.
Nothing wrong with being a little animated or excited about something, but I have certainly been more aware of how I can bombard myself and others with endless chatter when a good does of not chatting can be just as useful and beneficial.
Last night I went to see the Soweto Gospel Choir. Beautiful, powerful, uplifting singing and playing. They could hit huge highs, rumbling lows and belt it out when needed. But what got my attention, for some reason, were the times when they held silence. There was a respectful restraint at times, inter-played with roving soft tones and hushed semi-quavers. With all the vocal majesty and power at their command, they sat in the silent moments. And said more there than they could when raising their voices to the heavens.
So what’s that all about?
I recall reading about how the great musicians learn when not to play the notes. Let the silence breathe and give a certain cadence to the music, a counterpoint, a way of giving it texture. Ukelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro speaks of letting the brush that he holds being used to paint spaces…paint silence. What an image to clutch onto as I sit back and think about how I am in this world, how I am with others, how I am with myself.
Painting silence. A tough call for someone who used every available empty spot to park his Yap-a-Mobile and vent toxic exhaust for everyone within range to suck in. Not pleasant. Silent spots were always a tough one for me growing up and even into early recovery. I couldn’t sit properly with silence. It was threatening, it held me captive, it didn’t allow me to engage as a way of compensating for the unease I felt. Silence was for churches, for temples, for those weirdos who meditated. Why have awkward silence when bellowing fodder could edge that out easily and neatly?
In high school, playing in the school band, we learned about all the notes – whole, half, quarter, etc. We also had these strange symbols that denoted rest points. Rest? Why rest? Why not sustain things, keep the ball rolling, getting our funk on? Sure it was useful at the beginning, to give my novice woodwind jaw a break, but once I got past that, I wanted to keep at it. I resented those breaks. I wanted to keep blowing hot air (a motif in my life, yes?)
It wasn’t until my final year that I started to understand the reason for the rests, for the silence. In art, they speak of negative and positive spaces. Aspect ratios. Even in my culinary trade, when putting food on the plate in an artistic manner, we use those concepts of space and non-space. Rule of odd numbers. There has to be that negative, or silent, space to balance things out. To allow for the eye, ear, mind and spirit to equilibriate. To give dramatic pause, and to allow the light of the non-being to shine.
And that is how I have seen how I am in this world. How I am with others, how I am with myself. I saw that for all those years, I was the horn that wouldn’t stop trumpeting. I was the car alarm (they still have those?) that wouldn’t shut off. I was the air raid siren that persisted even at the absence of any inherent danger. Or was that a real danger, in fact? That’s important, because when I was drinking, everything was a danger or threat to me. Everything. How you looked at me, how you spoke to me, how you didn’t speak to me, how you held your coffee when near me…everything was a threat against my well-being. So off I went like a sprinkler at first whiff of smoke.
That’s how I stumbled through life – yammering and barking my way through things, afraid that if I shut off, that I would be overwhelmed not only by you, but by me. My thoughts of worthlessness, guilt, anger, fear…all these things would bubble up and I would get swallowed up. So I would drink them away while I created a marching band around it as the soundtrack. Keep talking so they don’t see your pain, Paul. Doesn’t matter who you talk to – the cat, the tree, the bald lady that lives across the street. Keep at it, keep blowing those pipes, keep that glass full, keep the lies and drama up, keep beating yourself up, keep blaring that death metal, keep the white noise on at night, keep the radio on full blast, keep keeping on.
Full noise. Full stop.
You see, it wasn’t the talking so much as it was the noise level. I matched the noise around me to the twisted, terrifying noise in my head. No silence and reprieve within meant no silence and reprieve without. The sheet music would be almost black with the amount of notes jammed on there. I couldn’t find a rest stop even with a AAA map and GPS. Because silence meant pain, pure and simple. Pain.
The turning point for me in slowly finding the value of silence was about a year into my recovery. I was still uncomfortable (understatement) with the idea of silence. Sometimes in meetings there can be one, two, three minutes of utter silence, as we wait for the next person to share. For some (including me), it would be torture. We weren’t used to sitting with our thoughts, and to do it with a group of strangers? Madness! Someone just start blathering, please! And someone would…just to break the silence.
What I learned was that it was in the rest notes, the silence, that I was able to process things. I was able to take things in more. I was able to just be and to take in the moment. I learned to actually occupy my mouth by breathing and not forming useless consonants and vowels. I learned to listen for the first time in my life. Coming from a serial interrupter like me, this was gold. Instead of thinking of what I was going to say next, and forming that lovely Oscar speech in my head, I just forced myself to listen. What a concept. And I do my best to practice that today, in the here (hear?) and now.
Improving on that silence brought me to a place of now being one of those weirdo meditation dudes. Sitting in stillness doesn’t necessarily mean burning incense and chanting. Not at all. I sometimes sit in the park and just gaze out at the children playing or the people skating or people hanging with their dogs. Or watching the wind rustling the leaves. Other times it’s when I am running and I just focus on my breath, or the sound of my feet slapping pavement. There is a rhythm and pace that brings me to a deeper place.
This has brought me many rewards in my interactions with others. Working with others has also taught me the value of shutting my trap and taking things in, as is. Learning to not play the notes. Painting silence. Taking in what others say, hearing their own pauses in speech, listening for what they aren’t saying and reading between the lines – the things I would miss if I were using my own words to plug in the holes of silence. Tapping into the unspoken brings me some greater clarity in my own inner landscape and in connecting with others.
I was talking to a friend about this not to long ago, and he mentioned something along these very lines. “Sometimes the best solution is doing nothing at all”, he said. And I understood that. And to carry that further, sometimes the best thing to do is say nothing. Sometimes people want to be heard and nothing else (I learned that one from my wife), so yapping off about this and that and giving advice and offering solutions is not what they want. Sometimes I just need to sit in their pain and stay quiet. Keep painting.
In the end, it’s the balance of said and not-said that anchors me to the sense of well-being and being connected with others. When I just stop ego from wanting to be in the spotlight, when I just filter the noise from the necessary, when I just shed the shawl of showmanship, when I just take in the moment and not soil it with unnecessary verbiage…then I am taking in more of the negative space, taking in more breathing room.
Sometimes I just need to put my instrument onto my lap, breathe, and listen the music around me.